Laura Rozen, over at Foreign Policy, reports in on the long wait for Paul Farmer, head of the Third World health organization Partners In Health, to be tapped to head the U.S. Agency for International Development. Anyone who has read Tracy Kidder's excellent, highly readable 2003 biography of Farmer, Mountains Beyond Mountains, can see how Farmer might be, um, complicated to vet, since he lives a fairly nomadic existence, has been scathing about U.S. policy towards the third world, etc.
But I think it's interesting to consider for a moment what kind of manager Farmer might be like if he survives a vetting and confirmation process and ends up at USAID. Certainly, he would be like few other government appointees anywhere, ever. First off, there's the work ethic question. Kidder describes Farmer as a guy who sleeps four or five hours a night, can sleep anywhere, and travels hundreds of thousands of miles a year, and skips across continents every month. In other words, he's someone who wouldn't have to ramp up his work ethic to take a government job; he probably could slow down, and might even be forced to, because he'd be required to be in Washington a certain amount of the time simply to administer the agency and attend meetings.
Second, Farmer is THE model of an inspirational leader. He takes an incredibly difficult task--working incredibly long hours, for incredibly poor people, sometimes in incredibly poor working conditions, for not very much money--and manages to make people excited about and devoted to the work. In a way, Farmer might have an easier sell at USAID, where the salaries are probably larger than they are at Partners In Health, and the resources available are larger. But I also think that Farmer would be able to recruit people who are inspired by him to make significant and substantial sacrifices. And I think it would be an interesting test case for that kind of leadership model in a federal agency. Most department and agency heads are rib-rock competent people, but they're not necessarily fire-starters. Kathleen Sebelius seems like a very nice, very smart person, but she isn't necessarily the kind of person who inspires other people to throw over their life plans, question their priorities, and go work in impoverished Peruvian communities to combat highly infectious multiple-drug-resistant tuberculosis. Farmer is. Maybe his enthusiasm and the bureaucracy of USAID would clash horribly. Maybe government needs those competent but less firey people who can work the system. But Farmer's presence at USAID could be a useful model to examine to see how far a leader can shake up a bureaucracy, and how far he can inspire people to make things different.